Wednesday 15 October 2014

The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee

Sometimes it's hard for a book to live up to your own high expectations.

The Lives of Others screamed 'love me' from the start.
I love Indian literature & history.
The purple cover with dragonflies was designed to appeal to me.
The first few pages are taken up with a family tree and map - & I love a family tree & map!
A huge, glorious, rich epic family saga was awaiting me!

The first chapter was gut-wrenching and heart-breaking and got us straight into the issues of family, poverty, inequality, despair & a particular time in Indian history & politics.

Three of my all-time favourite books are set in India - A Suitable Boy, Midnight's Children and The God of Small Things.
All three transported me to a country I have never been to - they made me feel like I was home. I could smell the smells, hear the sounds & feel the humidity. The colours and images and places lit up in my mind like a long lost friend.

Two of these books also won the Booker Prize, so I was secretly thinking I had picked the winner for this years Booker when I started The Lives of Others.

However as I went along I realised that I was not falling into India like I had with the other books. I was not engaging with the characters or place in the very visceral way I had experienced before.

Some of the characters were stronger & more completely realised than others - Chhaya, the malicious, jealous unmarried, dark-skinned sister, the mathematical child prodigy, Sona, and the suspicious, demanding sister-in-law Purnima quickly came to life.
With so many 'others' (& their numerous nicknames) though, it was not always easy to remember who you were reading about. That may have been a concentration issue on my behalf though, as I was often impressed by Mukherjee's ability to get inside the skin of all his characters (even if I didn't!)
As the story progressed, all the individual personalities gradually separated out from the family drama - the same event being examined from multiple perspectives in such a way to make you feel empathy for each.

Even though I knew quite a few of the local words and customs mentioned by Mukherjee, there were many unknowns as well. I was creating quite a list of look-up words, when I discovered the glossary in the back, which helped a lot, but made it hard to get a good reading flow going.

There were some incredible, poignant moments as Mukherjee dissected the cruelties & absurdities of family life. Family secrets, fears, hostilities, loyalties, betrayals and dreams are carefully revealed. I underlined lots of meaningful sections...

"Everyone knew what a big gap existed between what they said in public and what they did in public."

"We credit ourselves with far more agency than we actually possess. Things happen because they happen."

"Did one ever know the mind and soul and personality of one's child, even little segments of them?"

"Ordinary conversations felt like booby-trapped enclosures."

"The words, the tone, her expression, all pulled in different directions."

But ultimately, I felt far, far away from the heart & soul of this story.
I felt unconnected to the characters and disconnected from the place.

I wanted to love and adore this book.
Instead I got some insightful family dynamics wrapped up in a history lesson with some sparkling, some pedestrian use of language.

This was the only other book on the shortlist that I wanted to read from this year's Booker (I read the Australian winner, The Narrow Road to the Deep North last year also with mixed feelings.)
How did you all go with this year's Booker shortlist?

For now though, The Lives of Others helps me to complete 2 challenges - the Chunkster Challenge (514 pgs) and the Around the World reading challenge.


  1. Anonymous15/10/14

    Honest review ...sometimes books just dont resonate as one had hoped.
    My shortlist Booker Prize progress: 2 books are opened on my bookshelf....and they did not win!
    Hesitant to read Roger Flanagan's book...sounds very raw and shocking. Although it did win Booker Prize 2014 that doesn't not always mean it was the best book on the shortlist. I'm sure there will be discussions about this choice.

    1. The people I know who read the book all the way through (Flanagan's that is) have absolutely raved about it.
      The ABC Book Club even went so far as to call it a masterpiece last year...which nearly made me re-think whether I should try it again to get past the tough bits.

  2. ...that is probably what I should do.
    Just deal with the tough bits and try to enjoy the larger part of the book.
    Controversial books are usually the ones we should read even though it can be a test of perseverance.
    As Robert Frost said: "The best way out is always through" !

  3. Getting confused between multiple characters is something that has happened and can mar a reading experience. Too bad this one was not as engaging as it seems like it could have been.

    1. I usually enjoy books with a cast of thousands, but I do seem to be going through a 'funny' phase with my reading right now.
      It's not that I haven't enjoyed this book; I just haven't love and adored it!!

      I feel it has been a while since I got totally swept away by a book (I went close with The Bone Clocks though).

  4. Anonymous17/10/14

    Sorry to hear you didn't enjoy the book as much as you had planned. I can't decide whether I want to read this book or not. For that matter, I haven't even read any of the long-listed Booker books this year. Congrats on finishing up two of your challenges!

    1. It is a good book, with some exceptional moments.
      Some of his insights into character are startling and the nuances of close family living are brilliant.

      I think I'm just going through a weird reading phase that leaves me feeling unsatisfied with everything!


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